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The Asian Art Museum opens a new accessible exhibit

In a new exhibition of Indian art, San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum takes steps towards accessibility for blind and visually impaired patrons.

Closeup of a tactile version of The Hindu deity Kali, by Baua Devi, shows the deity's face in bright pinks, yellows and blacks with her tongue hanging out of her mouth.
Closeup of a tactile version of The Hindu deity Kali, by Baua Devi, shows the deity’s face in bright pinks, yellows and blacks with her tongue hanging out of her mouth.

On September 7, a new exhibition opens at the Asian Art Museum featuring 17 contemporary artists working in the Mithila style, a traditional style of women’s domestic decoration originating in the Indian subcontinent.

The exhibition, Painting Is My Everything: Art from India’s Mithila Region, includes three tactile renderings produced by the LightHouse’s MAD Lab and designed by Hong Kong-based social designer Rico Chan. The tactile renderings are displayed on kiosks throughout the exhibition, accompanied by braille labels and audio descriptions, which can be accessed through the museum’s app.

The temporary exhibition features 30 large scale contemporary works on paper from Bihar state, the subcontinent’s rural northeast. It is the first major exhibition in more than a decade to explore how this age-old tradition of women’s domestic decoration has become a vibrant arts movement with a surprising social impact. It is also the museum’s first foray into accessibility in the form of tactile translation, a method that they hope to fine-tune and experiment with in future exhibitions.

“We’ve been chomping at the bit to integrate more accessible accommodations and it was the exhibition that was coming up when everything fell into place,” says Director of Education and Interpretation at the museum, Deborah Clearwaters. “We want to be accessible to people of all abilities, and we know we have much more to do. This project is one experiment in bringing artworks to life for visitors who are blind or have low vision. We have more of an opportunity to try things in some of our changing galleries and these paintings really lend themselves to this approach because they’re very graphic and 2d in style.”

Mithila style painting is characterized by density of line and texture, strong figurative outlines of brush and ink, fine detailing and elaborate borders, and was originally practiced exclusively by women on the walls of their homes. The art form often depicts rituals or religious imagery, including scenes of weddings, flowers and animals as symbols of fecundity and depictions of Hindu god and goddesses. The style of painting is a catalyst of economic growth and social change in Mithila, and for many women, has translated into financial independence and community respect.

Women artists make up only 3 to 5% of major permanent collections in the U.S. and Europe, and in 590 major exhibitions by nearly 70 institutions in the U.S. from 2007 to 2013, only 27% were devoted to women artists. A further winnowing occurs for female Asian artists — so there’s a beautiful synchronicity, then, to making underrepresented work accessible to a group who has minimal access to visual art, even in the most established museums and galleries around the world.

“The Asian Art Museum stands firmly on the side of inclusion, global consciousness, and cultural empathy,” says the museum’s Artistic Director and CEO, Jay Xu. “Not only are our doors open to all, but we actively pursue ways to make our museum more accessible to more people.”

The idea grew out of conversations with disabled members of the Asian Art Museum when asked for suggestions for improving accessibility at an ongoing series of Disability Community Charrettes. Several blind or low vision members suggested tactile renderings and braille labeling to accompany detailed audio description. The museum involved several of these patrons (with varying degrees of vision) into an iterative process that determined the final tactile design and spatial layout of the exhibition.

The tactile kiosks are comprised of slanted counter-height platforms holding the artwork rendered in full color, with the added element of raised tactile lines and textures. The wall behind each kiosk offers a printed sheet with the verbal description of the piece as well as information about the piece in braille on the tactile surface. The accompanying audio description can be accessed via the Asian Art Museum’s app or this YouTube playlist. The setup is meant to allow both blind and sighted audiences to interact with the pieces in tandem and, hopefully, start a dialogue.

“This is an opportunity that we’ve been waiting for for a while,” says the MAD Lab’s Project Manager BJ Epstein. “We’re really excited to be able to produce tactile artwork for the Asian Art Museum. You can hear about a piece of art or read about a piece of art, but without vision, it’s by getting your hands on it that you can really get a sense of the piece and its layout. We’re really excited to be doing this for the museum and for our community.”

Painting Is My Everything: Art from India’s Mithila Region runs through December 30. The exhibition is open Tuesdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Thursdays until 9 p.m. Learn more about accessibility at the Asian Art Museum before you go.

Provide your feedback

The museum will host a focus group for blind and low vision patrons on Saturday, September 29 from 1 to 3 p.m. in hopes of understanding how to further improve their accessibility standards for future exhibitions — RSVP to

Contact the LightHouse MAD Lab

To contract for custom tactile maps of your neighborhood, workplace or university or propose a museum project like this one, visit

Announcing the 2018 Superfest Disability Film Festival lineup

San Francisco’s LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired and the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability at San Francisco State are proud to announce the lineup for this year’s Superfest Disability Film Festival.

Join us on October 20 at The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life in Berkeley and on October 21 the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco for the best in unapologetic, accessible and cutting edge disability film.

Purchase tickets to Superfest 2018

Superfest is the longest running disability film festival in the world. Since it first debuted as a small Los Angeles showcase in 1970, it has become an eagerly anticipated international event. The festival is one of the few in the world to provide an accessible film experience to disabled filmgoers of all kinds.

Disability Rights advocate Alice Wong speaks at Superfest in 2017.
Disability Rights advocate Alice Wong speaks at Superfest in 2017.

Each judge for Superfest is a member of the disability community, and they ground our festival in the values and ambitions of a progressive, Bay Area-driven disability ethos. The jury is comprised of filmographers, disability rights advocates, community organizers and award-winning creatives. They choose the submissions based on standards of artistry, portrayal of disability and ingenuity.

Superfest features films from five continents which highlight a range of experiences of people living with disabilities through a variety of genres and formats. From observational documentary to action to stop motion, we have films which will entertain, educate and promote discussion on disabilities.

Announcing the 2018 Superfest Lineup

Stumped (US, 2017), Documentary Short, Best of Festival – Short (25 minutes)

Climber Maureen Beck is not here to be your inspiration. She was born missing her lower left arm, but that hasn’t stopped her from going hard. “I don’t want to just be a good one-armed climber,” says Maureen. “I want to be a good climber.”

A climber ascends a free-standing rock, while two people stand on a rock below her.
A climber ascends a free-standing rock, while two people stand on a rock below her.

Still Tomorrow (China, 2016), Documentary, Best of Festival – Feature (1 hour 23 minutes)

Yu Xiuhua is a village woman with cerebral palsy, who became China’s most well-known poet in 2015. Her 20-year-long arranged marriage has become the biggest pain in her life. Through her poems, she contemplates her fate and writes about her body and her desire for true love.

A woman stands with her back to the camera in a field of a dark, tall grassy crop.

Stim (US, 2017), Documentary Short, P.K. Walker Innovation in Craft Award (7 minutes)

An artistic ode to the practice of stimming, or self-stimulatory behavior, the repetition of physical movements or sounds, or repetitive movement of objects.

Lower-body shot of a child sitting cross-legged, grasping a blue plush toy with one hand.

Who Am I To Stop It (US, 2017), Documentary Short, Disability Justice Award (30 minutes) 

This semi-observational documentary explores isolation, art and transformation after brain injury. Through cinéma vérité, the film follows Dani Sanderson, a poet and beat boxer, as she navigates autonomy, relationships, and questions of family, queer sexuality and faith.

A woman sits, reading a sheet with a poem entitled “Never Ending Trauma.”

To Know Him (UK, 2018), Dramatic Short (28 minutes)

When a tragic accident leaves Sarah grieving for her deaf partner Rob, she is forced to track down and engage with his estranged hearing father. To lay the man she loves to rest, Sarah must overcome a barrier far greater than language.

Two women sit, both with looks of concern, gazing towards the left. The woman, at left, is in focus and wears a black shirt.

Making Waves (Australia, 2017), Documentary Short (6 minutes)

Max McAuley is a young, professional dancer with Down Syndrome. In this story, Max is the principal dancer in a choreographed work that is inspired by the watery world of his dreams.

A boy dances in front of lights which mimic water, and below, subtitle: "Dancing is my thing that I love."
A boy dances in front of lights which mimic water, and below, subtitle: “Dancing is my thing that I love.”

Just Go! (Latvia, 2017), Action Short (11 minutes)

Inspired by the true story about a young man, Just, who lost both of his legs in a childhood accident. At age 24, he is in love with the girl next door, and through an action-packed series of events, the film proves that looks can be deceiving.

A young man rolls with his torso on a skateboard and arms pushing him past flowers in a market.
A young man rolls with his torso on a skateboard and arms pushing him past flowers in a market.

Gaelynn Lea – The Songs We Sing (US, 2017), Documentary Short (11 minutes)

Minnesota violinist and disability rights advocate Gaelynn Lea travels the upper Midwest on tour, experiencing the ups and downs of the road while hustling hard to make it as a performer and artist.

A woman cradles a violin while leaning towards a microphone.
A woman cradles a violin while leaning towards a microphone.

This Is Normal (US, 2014), Dramatic Short (19 minutes) 

A young deaf woman undergoes an experimental medical procedure that is supposed to “cure” her of her deafness and give her the ability to hear. Despite the controversy, Gwen risks her friends, culture and identity to discover the answer to the question, “Is it worth giving up who you’ve been for who you could become?”

A profile shot of a woman sitting in her car, looking distraught.
A profile shot of a woman sitting in her car, looking distraught.

Journey to the Miracle Man (Sweden/Brazil, 2018), Documentary Feature (1 hour 5 minutes)

With as much hope as doubt, Fabian and Lisa travel on a journey that will change their worldview. But is the Miracle Man (John of God) the savior everyone is talking about? And do they need to believe to be healed?

A woman stands on a ledge in front of a fresh night sky with low, blue light in front of an open frontier. She holds her phone up to photograph the scene.
A woman stands on a ledge in front of a fresh night sky with low, blue light in front of an open frontier. She holds her phone up to photograph the scene.

Kū Kanaka/Stand Tall (US, 2016), Documentary Short (28 minutes)

When 15-year-old Kanalu Young takes a dive into shallow water, he becomes quadriplegic, paralyzed from the neck down. Angry and defiant through months of rehabilitation, he begins to change when he learns the Hawaiian language, and discovers an untold story of Hawaiian history.

A group of people walk in a march, and one joins in a wheelchair. The people wear leis and flowers, and men wearing shirts that say "Security" surround at the bounds.
A group of people walk in a march, and one joins in a wheelchair. The people wear leis and flowers, and men wearing shirts that say “Security” surround at the bounds.

Stopgap in Stop Motion (UK, 2017), Animated Short (5 minutes) 

Photographs of performers in a disabled and non-disabled dance company come to life. The individual artists dance out of the photos and across table tops until the whole company meets and performs in unison.

Two photographs sit upright beside a shelf of papers. At left, a man stands looking at his phone. In the photo at right, a woman sitting in a wheelchair smiles back at the camera.
Two photographs sit upright beside a shelf of papers. At left, a man stands looking at his phone. In the photo at right, a woman sitting in a wheelchair smiles back at the camera.

Purchase tickets to Superfest 2018

Access at Superfest

As always, Superfest will be furnished with a wide range of accessible accommodations: audio description, open captions, ASL interpretation, audience-integrated wheelchair seating, close-up seating for people with low vision or who are deaf or hard of hearing, a chemical free and scent free area set back from rest of audience, a place to retreat, gender neutral restrooms, easy access to public transportation including BART and MUNI, and ramp access to the stage.

Behind the Map: This O&M Instructor uses TMAP to demystify the streets of Vacaville

In January, LightHouse started offering TMAP — on-demand tactile street maps — for order at our Adaptations Store (1-888-400-8933). We have been hearing some amazing stories about how our maps are being used, so we wanted to share them with our mapping community.

Sarah McIntyre has fond childhood memories of San Francisco. These trips were all defined by one nostalgic artifact: a giant, foldable street map from AAA. “My mother taught me to read maps,” Sarah says. “She was always the navigator.” And though most families now navigate with digital maps, Sarah fondly remembers the hard copies: well-loved, frayed on the edges, markings revealing every adventure past and future.

Today Sarah is an orientation and mobility instructor at LightHouse, and when she teaches blind students, she stresses this point: navigating by smartphone works until it doesn’t — until you’re out of service, or the environment is so loud that the speech from your phone is too hard to hear. Even with endless technology at our fingertips, there’s no match for a real map.

This is why, when our Media and Accessible Design (MAD) Lab started creating automated tactile maps (TMAPs) this year, Sarah immediately adopted the on-demand maps as a learning tool for her students.

Working out of Solano County, Sarah finds that towns like Vacaville – where car culture reigns supreme – can be hard for pedestrians to picture in the mind.

Map segment depicting a point of interest on a loop with multiple cross-streets
Map segment depicting a point of interest on a loop with multiple cross-streets

Sarah recently used TMAP to confront just this sort of dilemma with a student living on a street that was a circular loop – but not a perfect circle. Using words to explain the tricky extra turn to lead the student back to her doorstep was proving too difficult. New to America, the student had only been in the United States for three years, and mobility was a challenge. It would be a crucial step forward for her to master her home neighborhood.

Normally, Sarah would have confronted this challenge by taking out her DIY mapping kit: a roll of heavy duty aluminum foil, various hand embossers and loose Wikki Stix, among other odds and ends. But hand-crafting a tactile diagram is a big effort to explain one confusing intersection. With TMAP, Sarah had a touchable diagram of the strange circular block printed immediately.

Another student had Sarah print his first TMAP of the area around Gold’s Gym in downtown Vacaville. As luck would have it, the gym turned out to be smack dab in the middle of downtown, which meant that this map would be a particularly good one; useful for finding more than just the gym.

Sarah and her student headed downtown with the map, starting from the center and getting to know the outlying streets –– turning the map with each turn of the corner to navigate methodically, non-visually, through Vacaville’s old town center.

A map depicting many streets in the downtown grid of Vacaville, centering around 201 Main Street.
A map depicting many streets in the downtown grid of Vacaville, centering around 201 Main Street.

For her student, Sarah says, the map was a revelation. “He didn’t know how to read a map visually, let alone non-visually,” she points out. “That’s a huge emotional thing for people, to actually gain a new skill that you thought required eyesight.” Now, she says, he is talking about traveling for work and getting to know new cities with a new level of confidence.

Teaching her students to use the map key has also been a huge boost for their mobility. Not only does each TMAP come with a prominent compass rose, but the key lists the running direction (e.g. North-South or East-West) of each street – all in large print and braille.

“I love braille,” says Sarah. Usually when someone who isn’t blind professes such a thing, they’re not actually familiar with the writing system, or at best, a romantic. But Sarah is serious. “Audio is very linear, and you need the ability to stop moving forward, to control the pace you’re reading at and backtrack fluidly and with braille you have that option. Braille works the same way vision does in that sense.”

Sarah tells her students they don’t need to know braille in order to benefit from the TMAPs, but it’s sure a valuable skill to develop.

Get your TMAP today

To order a map, call our product specialists at 1-888-400-8933 and specify the street address of the map you’re interested in receiving. Within two business days we’ll ship you your map, or make it available for pick up at the Adaptations Store (1155 Market St., 10th Floor, San Francisco, CA). Each TMAP package is $19.99 per address.

What’s in the package?

  • You will receive 3 map versions printed at simple, moderate and dense map scale ratios
  • A tactile map key
  • An introductory page
  • All materials are printed on 11” X 11.5” sheets of embossed paper and include ink / large print labels in addition to braille

Click here to learn more more about TMAP.

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LightHouse and the World According to Sound present the sounds of California

Radio journalists partner with LightHouse for the Blind in San Francisco for an unprecedented experiment on the art and science of sound.

The LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired is partnering with The World According to Sound to create a podcast, radio and touring performance series that will take listeners on an audio exploration of California from the acoustic perspective of the blind. This non-visual, surround-sound performance, which began with a grant from California Humanities, and is augmented by direct support from the LightHouse, continues with its goal of pushing the boundaries of audio storytelling and furthering LightHouse’s mission both in-person and over the airwaves.

The WATS producers place speakers around a room before their immersive sounds performance.
The WATS producers place speakers around a room before their immersive sounds performance.

Each radio and podcast episode will focus on one sound or story that captures what it’s like to live in California as someone who is blind or visually impaired. We will hear from wanderers and winemakers, commuters and hikers, teenagers and those who are retired. Using the latest in 3D sound recording technology, the World According to Sound’s producers will work to faithfully capture environments, stories and observations from all corners of California.

For the live shows, these ambisonic recordings and stories will be projected on a ring of speakers, engulfing the audience in sound to give both sighted and blind listeners, seated in total darkness, a new appreciation of their environment through the rich and often-overlooked world of sound.

For more information about this collaboration and the performance, please contact or

The World According to Sounds co-producers Chris Hoff and Sam Harnett stand in a parking lot with their recording equipment.
The World According to Sounds co-producers Chris Hoff and Sam Harnett stand in a parking lot with their recording equipment.

The World According to Sound is a podcast, radio program, and live performance. 90-second episodes of the radio program have aired on NPR, The California Report, and public radio stations across the country. The Washington Post wrote that “each episode contains a neat little story about an evocative, unusual sound rendered in intense aural detail.” WBEZ featured the show’s innovative approach to radio on Morning Shift, and the podcast HowSound dedicated an episode to the philosophy behind the program’s minimally-narrated, sound-dependent audio. Show producers Chris Hoff and Sam Harnett have taken the live version of their program on tour and have played at over 40 locations, including colleges like Cornell and Brown; performing arts venues like WNYC’s Greene Space and PRX’s Podcast Garage; and galleries like the Lab and the Whitebox.

An Untapped Market: How Ojok Simon is training the next generation of Ugandan beekeepers

Blind beekeeper Ojok Simon won the Holman Prize for Blind Ambition in 2017, becoming one of the Prize’s first three recipients. LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco announced the 2018 Holman Prizewinners this month. Read our update on Ahmet Ustunel and stay posted for news on blind baker Penny Melville-Brown later this month.

Ojok Simon starts his day with honey. He wakes up at his home in Gulu, Uganda where he lives with his wife and five children, boils water, adds a squeeze of lemon and finishes it off with a spoonful of smoky, tangy honey produced by thousands of Africanized “killer” bees he tends at his non-profit bee farm, Hive Uganda.

He then leaves his house to head to the source of the honey. He walks 10 minutes along dirt roads flanked by tall grasses to the main roadside where he hops on a two-wheeler and travels along what he calls the “dancing roads” of the rural, agricultural district.

Ojok Simon addresses a classroom of Hive Uganda trainees.
Ojok Simon addresses a classroom of Hive Uganda trainees.

As an inaugural 2017 Holman Prizewinner, Ojok set out to train other blind people in rural Gulu how to keep bees as a means of livelihood — and he’s achieved just that. Since winning the prize last year, Ojok and his six fellow trainers have more than tripled their capacity, training 36 blind and low vision beekeepers within a 40-kilometer radius of the Hive Uganda homebase. As of August, he was slated to train 11 more before the end of his Holman Prize year.

Ojok established Hive Uganda in 2013. Partially blind since childhood, Ojok observed the disparaging mindsets around disability and rampant unemployment in the blindness community, and saw an opportunity to help his blind peers cultivate a better quality of life.

“The Holman Prize has helped us improve our infrastructure and expand our operations,” he says, noting the significant boost to capacity that the Prize allowed for. “We have strengthened our foundation base and opened the door for more connections and networking all over the world. Even after the money from the Holman Prize is spent, it will continue to give hope for other people to see and believe in what we’re doing.”

Ojok exudes warmth and optimism. His smile is boisterous and welcoming, lacking restraint. He possesses the kind of openness that often fades into adulthood, lessened by the strain of responsibility and hardship. In light of Ojok’s experience with violence at the hands of Ugandan rebels — his infectious joy seems even more remarkable.

In 1989, rebels from the Lord’s Resistance Army attacked Ojok’s home in the middle of the night. Nine years old at the time, Ojok stood up in bed — confused and half asleep. As the rebels searched for children, and boys in particular, they hit him multiple times in the side of the head with the blunt end of a gun to prevent him from fleeing. Due to a lack of proper medical attention, Ojok progressively lost sight in his left eye, with his right eye suffering damage as well.

“Growing up in an area with such conflict, you experience a lot of trauma,” he says. “It’s at the core of my people. So many people, like myself, have lost their vision because of war. After the incident, I thought there was no hope for my life. Life was painful. My dream had been to be a doctor and serve my peers. But after I lost my sight I thought I would not study or gain the skills I needed. Fortunately, or unfortunately, my uncle was beaten and also lost his sight. He gave me a way to follow — he was a role model for me.”

Legally blind by 1993, Simon learned braille in one year and joined a blind branch of high school in Gulu. With some basic rehabilitation, Ojok started to move forward and tackle his disability head on.

Fast forward to 2002 when Simon obtained a brailler and started school at Lakeside College in the capital city of Kampala. Here, Simon honed his skills on a typewriter, which made assimilating into this school much easier with his non-braille using cohorts. He graduated in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in development studies and became the first visually impaired person in Gulu to finish this level of schooling.

And though Ojok was deliberate in his pursuit of education, his entrée into beekeeping was a chance encounter. One night, lost in the fields near his house, Ojok stumbled upon a clay pot, inhabited by a beehive. A barrage of bee stings sent him packing, but Ojok returned to harvest the honey. After bringing the honey back to his family and quietly pilfering another clay pot for more bees to colonize — he had the makings of a budding bee farm. Word quickly spread through his community that there was honey in production, and that the beekeeper was blind. They had to see, and taste, for themselves.

Ojok stands with a group of friends and fellow trainers, holding jars of Hive Uganda honey.
Ojok stands with a group of friends and fellow trainers, holding jars of Hive Uganda honey.

“Tasting that honey, I found myself with a lot of energy,” says Ojok. “When we started serving honey to the people who didn’t have it, they wanted to come and see for themselves. They could not imagine a blind person being able to provide honey to the family and the community. I started building new friendships and community ties.”

And this is the very crux of Ojok’s work through the Holman Prize. The outcomes are two-fold: Hive Uganda trains blind people a valuable life skill, and in doing so, positions them as experts and leaders in a nationally viable market that directly supports their communities.

As the main agricultural region of northern Uganda, approximately 90% of Gulu’s inhabitants work in an industry centered around cotton, tea, coffee, corn, sorghum and tobacco. But according to experts, there is a huge potential to expand beekeeping and honey production in the region. Uganda harvests only 1% of a potential 500,000 tons of honey per year. Despite being only one of five countries in sub-Saharan Africa licensed to export honey to the EU, Uganda has failed to meet home-grown demands for honey, let alone export to this potential market.

The training model is economically and environmentally sound — though challenges remain, including locating blind participants and continuing to secure sources of funding, like the Holman Prize.

A big part of Hive Uganda’s work involves direct outreach to nearby villages to identify blind participants, as well as securing venues for training groups in remote locations. Trainees are an even split of men and women, and range widely in age. Hive Uganda funds trainees’ daily commute and supports them in renting accommodations when necessary. Trainings are split into theoretical and practical training, with 10 days of classroom work and 10-12 days of fieldwork, where trainees start working directly with the hives. The trainings also builds in two to three days of foundational orientation and mobility — i.e. cane skills — which is part of their theoretical curriculum.

Ojok says his courses are standard beekeeping courses with slight adjustments in technique for blind beekeepers. Essentially, he says, blind beekeepers rely more on a sense of touch and smell to tell if a beehive is healthy. When the frame of a hive is heavy with honey and gives off the subtle aroma of sweet corn — it’s probably ready for harvesting. Other blind-friendly techniques include placing landmarks like wooden rails and fences to and from the hives.

When the trainees finish a course, the trainers furnish them with four “hollow-tree” hives and help with transport to their chosen local site. It’s during this trip that they involve the local community, including one-on-one trainings with family members and neighbors.

“Involving the community builds self-sustainability,” says Ojok. “Here we are trying to change the mindset of people towards blind people. Our students become very sensitive to community development. They will teach the community about safe water practices or provide health education to their community. They become community leaders.”

And it’s through these outcomes that Ojok realized, perhaps he had become a doctor after all, though in a slightly different sense than he had imagined.

“I don’t even regret that I became blind and didn’t become a doctor,” he says. “Because I’m serving the people, my people — the marginalized, the forgotten society.”

And through reframing his own differences as a strength, he’s realized that perhaps we’re best off when we stop valuing people for their similarities, and start accepting and loving our fellow humans for what makes them unique.

“Nobody will ever be the same as another person. We all have differences, it’s how we distinguish each other. But most importantly, we are all human beings, sharing the same oxygen. We all have a brain and we all need support from one another, whether you’re blind or you’re not blind. What is blindness and what is non-blindness? It’s all about perception.”

About the Holman Prize

In 2017, San Francisco LightHouse for the Blind launched the Holman Prize to support the emerging adventurousness and can-do spirit of blind and low vision people worldwide. This endeavor celebrates people who want to shape their own future instead of having it laid out for them. In early July, we announced the 2018 Holman Prizewinners — congratulations to Stacy CervenkaConchita Hernández and Red Szell. Ojok and his fellow 2017 prizewinners will visit San Francisco in November 2017 to speak at the LightHouse Gala.

“We are thrilled to be able to continue the Holman Prize for a second year,” says LightHouse CEO Bryan Bashin. “These three new prizewinners represent a wide range of ambitions and life experience: from tackling social obstacles to huge tests of physical and mental fortitude, they reflect the diversity and capability of blind people everywhere.”

Created specifically for legally blind individuals with a penchant for exploration of all types, the Holman Prize provides financial backing – up to $25,000 – for three individuals to explore the world and push their limits. Learn more at

Tour the Salesforce Transit Center with LightHouse

On Sunday at midnight, the “Grand Central Station of the West” opened, right in our backyard. The new San Francisco Transbay Terminal, now known as the Salesforce Transit Center, is a 4.5 billion dollar, 1 million square foot development project, to include public parks, shops and a hub for the city’s buses, trains and eventually, high-speed rail.

San Francisco is clamoring with excitement about the opulent 1,000 foot facility, marked by the now-famous Salesforce Tower. If you’d like to read about the project, there are plenty of places: the Examiner does a good job describing the new Transit Center inside and out. But at LightHouse, we wanted to offer a hands-on opportunity for our blind community to get to know this fantastic new public resource.

Our LightHouse Training Department is pleased to let you know that LightHouse Orientation and Mobility Specialist(s) will be providing individual 2-hour Orientation Training at no charge to experienced commuters.  Orientation will be available Monday through Friday specific to the immediate incoming transit levels and connections to San Francisco transit our blind commuters. If you are a current Blind or Low Vision Commuter has regularly been using the Temporary Transbay Terminal, you may contact our Specialist in two ways. If you have been a student of the LightHouse in the past three years, please email Gina di Grazia as you likely are in our database.  If you are brand new to training at the LightHouse we request that you link to our LightHouse Registration Form and register as a new student.  Please request Transbay Terminal Orientation in the Program Interest section so that your registration and request is directly linked to our Orientation and Mobility Specialist.

With the good fortune of a Federal Grant, we are able to provide two hours of orientation at no charge during August and September.  To reiterate, initially we are targeting those commuters who need to know their routes for their pre-existing needs first. We expect to have a high volume of requests, so if you are already working with a mobility instructor through DOR, please connect with them first. The LightHouse will plan to offer small group orientation tours come the beginning of Fall to get further acquainted with the Sales Force Transit Center, dates will be planned and posted as our interest grows. For those of you who are new to blindness or Orientation and Mobility Training and you are interested in training with the LightHouse, you can get started by emailing

CalABLE: A New Way for Californians On SSI to Save Money

Four years ago, disability advocate Stephen Beck Jr. presented a simple but troubling problem to Congress: his daughter, who had Down Syndrome and received Supplemental Security Income (SSI), was prohibited from saving any money. Any income exceeding the most basic of living expenses would trigger a benefits cut-off –– and in some cases cause her to owe the government money. This is a situation blind people are all too familiar with, wherein the system that is made to support them often holds them back.

In 2014, spurred by Beck’s story, 85% of Congress joined forces to sign the ABLE Act: a federal update to tax law that would allow individuals with disabilities to save up to $100,000 in a designated bank account, to achieve a higher standard of living before their benefits were revoked.

Dozens of states have instituted ABLE Accounts, and this week California announced that it would be the next. On August 8th, California State Treasurer John Chiang announced that California’s ABLE program will launch by the end of the year, allowing all Californians on SSI to finally create a better foundation for their financial futures.

TIAA-CREF Tuition Financing, Inc. (TFI) will administer the program, called CalABLE. CalABLE is the California version of the federal ABLE Act.

“The ABLE Act is the most significant law for people who are blind, visually impaired, or disabled since the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed into law,” said Dante Allen, executive director for CalABLE. “We are very excited to be one step closer to launching CalABLE so that Californians can fully benefit from the financial flexibility and independence that this program will inspire.”

Participants can deposit online or by check to their accounts, and can invite family and friends to contribute directly to the account. The program also provides resources for investment options.

TFI was chosen by the CalABLE board vote due to the firm’s “low costs, proposed investment portfolio that offered simple choices for enrollees with clear preferences, and the simplicity of its program for those new to such a savings program,” according to the release.

“TFI’s selection means we’re one step closer to turning on CalABLE’s ‘Open for Business’ sign,” said Chiang in a release. “TFI’s expertise and oversight are a welcome help in reaching Californian’s with disabilities and their families, who will soon be able to save up to $15,000 a year, tax free, without jeopardizing their federal and state assistance.”

Under the current system, people who receive SSI are prohibited from saving more than $2,000 without losing their benefits. This is severely limiting for people throughout CA communities, including the 70 percent of blind adults who are unemployed.

“No one should have to fear losing their disability benefits because they decided to save wisely and invest in their future,” Chiang said in a release. “This program will help ensure no Californian with a disability will be penalized for thinking ahead.”

LightHouse will continue to cover these developments and announce when CalABLE is up and running. To continue to receive updates about these and similar programs, subscribe to our weekly newsletter.

EHC Rises Again: An Update from Our Biggest Teen Session Ever

Our official #RebuildEHC Volunteer Day is October 6, 2018. Join us on the first anniversary of the fires at EHC by signing up, pitching in and laying the groundwork for years to come. Contact to sign up.

Sitting next to the lake and surveying the 311-acre grounds of Enchanted Hills Camp, you might never know that just last October, a fire tore through parts of camp and damaged more than 20 structures, big and small. It was a trying time, but despite the fires, this summer’s recovered camp has never been more vibrant.

We just wrapped up the largest teen camp session ever, and 64 teens spread out across lower and upper camp — learning karate in the Kiva, playing Monopoly in the dining hall, braiding friendship bracelets in the Hogan, woodworking in the Art Barn, riding horses along the nature trails and fishing on the lake.

But to look a little closer, you’d find that things aren’t quite the same as in previous summers. After eight months of hard work, we reopened Enchanted Hills for a full 2018 summer and offered almost every session that generations have come to love since the camp opened in 1950. And despite challenges, upgrades to EHC have it looking better than ever.

Tony Fletcher, Director of EHC, reflects on this summer season. “Watching the adult campers, family campers and youth campers enjoy themselves so much and adapt to the modifications we have had to make to run camp this summer, reinforced my belief that the show must go on,” he says. Tony, who started working at LightHouse in 1989, just celebrated his 29th year of working in the blindness community. “There’s no way I could let a summer go by without us operating.”

So, what are some of the modifications? After the loss of the 10 cabins in lower camp that housed 120 campers and counselors, we knew we would have to find a swift and safe solution if we wanted to hold summer camp. Enter the Sweetwater Bungalows.

With their durable wooden frames, and breathable waterproof white canvas walls, the eight bungalows provide a sturdy and airy structure for a variety of weather conditions. The bungalows are eco-friendly and off the grid; we installed solar panels, which enable the bungalows to light up at night. One of the biggest adjustments for our campers has been the lack of plugs in their sleeping quarters to charge their mobile devices. What the bungalows lack in electricity, however, they gain in proximity to the pool and Dining Hall compared to the original lower camp structures.

The lakeside cabins got spruced up, too. Although they did not burn, thick smoke permeated the walls, windows and furniture. The cabins have new paint, bedding, flooring and windows. For the first time, some of our youth slept in the lakeside cabins so that we could hold the same number of campers in 2018 as we hosted in 2017.

One of the other concerns after the fire was the loss of habitats for the animals who live at camp. A lot of work went into removing weeds and brush and we continue to remove many of the trees that were charred in the fire, so that all those who live at EHC, animal and human, will have a safe place to live. We’ve even added new animals to camp. Two donkeys, Citizen and Quill, now keep company with our goats Saint Nicholas and Saint Christopher, who were rescued during the fires by the Napa Community Animal Response Team.

Many of the changes are less structural and more to express the spirit of community and fun that has gone into the rebuild. On the maroon fence that surrounds the swimming pool in lower camp there are large yellow plastic dots that spell out “Swimmin Pool” in Braille lettering. There is no letter G, but there is a cluster of dots forming a happy face to welcome you to the pool. Signs are up all along the roads thanking counselors and Americorps members for their contributions, and brightly colored flower pots are speckled throughout the gardens, right from Donald Sirkin’s own estate.

LightHouse Social Media Specialist Christina Daniels looks at a new bright yellow braille sign on the pool fence that reads 'Swimmin' Pool.'
LightHouse Social Media Specialist Christina Daniels looks at a new bright yellow braille sign on the pool fence that reads ‘Swimmin’ Pool.’

Another new addition to is one you can hear as you drive into upper camp. Outside the dining hall sit two PowerShowdown tables. Part table tennis and part air hockey, the object of the game is to bat the ball off the side wall, along the table, under the center screen, and into the opponent’s goal. All players wear sleep shades, making this a great game for blind and sighted people to play together. Chris Keenan, owner of Keenan’s Cabinets of Distinction, makes the tables. He and his wife Kelly personally drove to EHC to deliver them and took a mini-vacation at the newly reopened camp.

Working to rebuild EHC has involved careful prioritization of which buildings to reconstruct first. Next up is the tractor barn, as it will hold tools to reconstruct future buildings. Constructing a pool shade structure and bath house with improved showers and bathrooms also tops the list.

The combined work of PG&E, FEMA, Army Corps of Engineers and the EPA ensured EHC was safe after the fires. After that, volunteer organizations moved in to help with the cleanup, and continue to volunteer.

Individuals have also volunteered their time, including neighbors in the surrounding Mt. Veeder area, and we are organizing a special day where the EHC community can come together to help in the rebuilding efforts. A year after the fires, we will have a Community Volunteer Day on October 6. Allyson Ferrari, Volunteer Engagement Specialist, says, “I’m really excited for this day because it’s going to be an excellent opportunity to bring our community together and contribute in our efforts to rebuild, so that camp remains a cornerstone for many generations to come.” For more information about the EHC Community Volunteer Day, contact Allyson at or 415-694-7320.

Besides volunteering, you can donate to help #RebuildEHC in several ways. You can visit our donation page, use your mobile device to text REBUILDEHC to 501-55 or contact Jennifer Sachs at 415-694-7333 or, and tell her you want to help “Rebuild EHC”. Without hundreds of people working thousands of hours, EHC 2018 summer season would not have been possible. We are grateful for the outpouring of support.

LightHouse’s MAD Lab designs tactile comic strips for the Charles M. Schulz Museum

Charlie Brown and Snoopy are some of the most well-known characters of all time. By the time Peanuts’ creator Charles Schulz retired in December 1999, the comic strip had run for 50 years and been syndicated in over 2,600 newspapers worldwide, with book collections translated into more than 25 languages.

Peanuts is universally human in its sarcastic, nostalgic, bittersweet, silly, realist and occasionally fanciful humor. Schulz filtered his own dark irreverence into the trials and tribulations of Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy, and the rest of the characters many of us came to know and love. It is, fundamentally, a story of a dream not quite achieved — and how, even so, another day will come to pass.

A view of the Charles M. Schulz museum lobby.
A view of the Charles M. Schulz museum lobby.

It’s for its universality and renown that the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa remains dedicated to making Peanuts accessible to all — including the blind and low vision community. Just this month, the LightHouse MAD Lab worked with the Schulz Museum to create a tactile representation of a four-panel Peanuts strip first published on July 31, 1951.

The museum’s School and Youth Programs Coordinator Monica Hernandez initiated the collaboration after learning more about museum accessibility while studying at SF State, and to prepare for the museum’s second Accessible Tours Day, which will be held on September 23, 2018.

“As I understand it, often people with disabilities are told that they’re too expensive, that it’s too much trouble or effort to take on a project like this,” says Hernandez. “That’s not what we’re about. We try to do our best with accessibility at the museum.”

“The comic strip and Peanuts in general are such an accessible and universal topic,” she continues. “People from all over the world love and know and understand Snoopy. Schulz put a little bit of himself into every character, and we all relate to at least one of them — whether it’s the innocent and gullible Charlie Brown or Peppermint Patty because she’s good at sports.”

The strip in question was chosen deliberately in hopes of demonstrating the evolution of the (arguably) most beloved characters — Charlie Brown and Snoopy. An earlier depiction, the strip shows Snoopy running on all four legs (he later evolved to his more recognizable upright, two-legged stance) and a youthful, oblong-headed Charlie (into the 90s, his neck and torso elongated and he adopted a wobbly, anxious mouth).

Charlie Brown challenges Snoopy to a race: “Snoopy, let’s have a race!” When Snoopy sets off, Charlie Brown stays put: “Ah, now I can eat this candy in peace!”

It’s a sweet a simple strip that offers some insight into the very beginnings of the Peanuts’ long and storied history and evolution. MAD Lab’s 10″ X 11″ Direct UV prints used the simplicity of Schulz’s bold lines to their advantage — one set of the ensuing tactile representations feature one-to-one raised lines and braille descriptions. A second set used used various fills, textures and relief heights to differentiate between the overlapping figures of Charlie Brown and Snoopy.

MAD Lab’s Senior Designer Naomi Rosenberg found the project to be a great exercise in translation: “We’re trying to stay as true to the original comic strip as possible, but translate it in a way that makes sense to the touch,” she says. “Pairing tactiles with succinct descriptions provided by the museum was a great approach. They really had the right intentions and a good understanding of the needs of blind users. There’s something exciting about working with a museum that sees a lot of kids and school groups coming through. The project might have an impact on exposing kids to tactiles early on.”

Hernandez was very happy with the project’s outcome and looks forward to seeing how the community receives the strip during Accessible Tours Day.

“It was so great working with the MAD Lab on this project and learning from their expertise,” says Hernandez. “They were very positive and warm throughout the process and openly offered suggestions. The project will go a long way for increasing the Museum’s accessibility and starting further conversations and projects around access.”

Accessibility at the Charles M. Schulz Museum

Schulz himself initiated accessible projects including a braille version of “Happiness is a Warm Puppy”, which can be viewed at the museum upon request.

MAD Lab’s tactile comic strip is also on view by request and will be available for viewing the museum’s Accessible Tours Day on Sunday, September 23 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Special tours will be available for deaf, hard of hearing and low vision visitors led by trained docents with sign-language interpreters throughout the morning.

To reserve your tour time in advance call 707-284-1263 or email Tours are included with regular museum admission and the museum also offers large-print booklets of exhibition text at the front desk for low vision visitors.

Contact the MAD Lab

To contract for custom tactile maps of your neighborhood, workplace or university or propose a museum project like this one, visit

To get to the other side: The Blind Captain makes his mark

If you picked up a newspaper, turned on the TV or navigated any Istanbul-based news site last weekend, you probably came across the story of 2017 Holman Prizewinner Ahmet Ustunel. It took two technical failures, three last-minute schedule changes, and a whole lot of training and improvisation – but we are pleased to share that, at just before 11 a.m. on Saturday, July 21, Ahmet The Blind Captain successfully navigated a hardshell ocean kayak solo, across the Bosphorus Strait, crossing from Asia to Europe without any visual cues.

A clipping of a Turkish newspaper shows Ahmet paddling out on the water with a headline in the Turkish language.
A clipping of a Turkish newspaper shows Ahmet paddling out on the water with a headline in the Turkish language.

For those who tried to view the historic event online: reality and ingenuity caused Ahmet to scrap the anticipated webcast in order to take advantage of an unanticipated time window.

Ahmet jumped into his kayak ahead of schedule, at 9:45 a.m. on Saturday, July 21. Ditching the original plan on the advice of the coast guard, Ahmet aimed to take advantage of a window when shipping traffic was calm. He was told that the window was only a half an hour; a bit of a shock considering that he was originally planning on taking 90 minutes to make the 3-mile crossing. Suddenly, he had one third of the time he expected to get across the 3-mile expanse.

In the lead-up to the crossing, things had become more and more hectic. Ahmet had a few crucial bits of tech bite the dust just fifteen minutes before getting in the boat – the result of water damage from a capsizing during one of Ahmet’s training sessions earlier in the week. So when the time came, Ahmet reached for old standby tools: namely the Ariadne GPS app, a Victor Stream Reader, and good ol’ Mister Beep, outfitted to give him vibrating compass feedback as he worked furiously to hit each waypoint across the daunting mid-Bosphorus shipping highway.

Ahmet embraces his wife, Dilara, after reaching the other side of the Bosphorus.
Ahmet embraces his wife, Dilara, after reaching the other side of the Bosphorus.

“The only thing I was thinking was about paddling,” he said last Sunday, still a little buzzed from the day. And it’s remarkable that he was able to focus. It was all he could do to keep coast guard, friends and journalists from crowding him on all sides, indicating for them to hang back as they eagerly trailed his progress at every turn. It wasn’t hard to know he had reached the other side, either:,100 meters from his destination, he heard the sounds of cheering: friends, family and TV news cameras, welcoming him back with an audible beacon that made it easy to find his final waypoint.

As he celebrated on the shore, overheated and overwhelmed, Ahmet rebelled, jumping back off the dock and into the water – to cool off – but maybe also to show one last display of independence and remind everyone that he was entirely at ease on his home shores.

The beautiful thing about Ahmet’s achievement is not so much one feat of strength or bravery: it’s the consistency, the team work, the flexible and improvisatory way that he adapted to the challenges that inevitably presented themselves, his insistence on staying the course and doing things on his own steam when everyone else would gladly step in to help.

This isn’t the end for Ahmet. His newfound confidence as a blind sailor and the support of the Holman Prize now make him feel able to take on yet more adventures. He assures us that he plans to cross the strait again next year – this time, when no one is paying attention. “If in 20 years, it’s still amazing for a blind person to navigate a kayak solo,” he always reminds us, “then we haven’t done our job.”

Ahmet will be on one of three Holman Prizewinners to present on his year-long adventures at the first-ever LightHouse Gala: A Celebration of Blind Ambition, on November 29, 2018. Get your gala tickets today.

For more updates about our other five Holman Prizewinners, follow us on Facebook and visit